In his second year as the Badgers' starting quarterback, Stocco has progressed from game manager to consistent playmaker. The junior shattered the Badgers' single-season record for passing yardage with 2,619 and tied the school mark with 19 touchdown passes.
"I thought he had a fantastic season," quarterbacks coach Jeff Horton said. "…Probably the two quietest records that have been broken this year is him breaking the season passing record and tying the touchdown record."
As Wisconsin prepares to face Auburn in the Jan. 2 Capital One Bowl, Stocco is also within reach of school records for season completions and attempts. His 148.4 pass efficiency rating is second in school history and is nearly 39 points higher than last year.
Stocco was many Badger fans' favorite lament last season. His performance as a first-year starter in 2004 was commendable if not quite aesthetically pleasing; he helped lead UW to a 9-0 start, but his limitations were clear during the Badgers' season-ending three-game losing streak.
Every aspect of Stocco's game has improved this year. He is more accurate with all manner of passes (completing 60.5 percent versus 52.6 last year), and has a better command of the offense and his position. Stocco has played with greater confidence, and was the Badgers' offensive weapon of choice at key moments this season, even with All-American tailback Brian Calhoun lined up behind him.
"A year ago he was just trying to play and not make mistakes," Horton said. "This year you've seen not just his improvement on the football field but in the other intangible things also."
Wisconsin had to turn to Stocco for offense late last season—with its running game decimated by injuries—and he struggled. This year the Badgers used an effective Stocco to complement Calhoun's record-setting campaign. Having gone through the rigors of starting last year, Stocco was better equipped for the season's twists and turns this time around. He was clearly ready for the challenge and played well.
"I think that he's done a good job and made plays, made throws and given guys opportunities to make plays," said co-offensive coordinator Paul Chryst, who coordinates the passing game. "Any time you do that you've got a chance to do some things…
"We've asked a lot of our quarterbacks and he's handled that well."
At times it looked like the Badgers took the training wheels off. Really, Stocco benefited from his own improvement more than any adaptation in scheme or play calling. "You can say we turned him loose more but yet he still only had nine interceptions," Horton said. "Any time you can be in single digits in the turnover battle you are making good decisions with the football….
"There's no substitute for experience. Next year he should take an even bigger jump because it's just going to be his third year in the deal."
One area where experience clearly helped Stocco was in his rapport with the Badgers' veteran receivers. At Chryst's behest, UW's quarterbacks and receivers spent the summer honing their timing through one-on-one work. As a result, an exceptional level of confidence developed between Stocco and his targets, especially senior receivers Brandon Williams and Jonathan Orr.
"That really helps you out a lot as a quarterback to know that you can take your drop and cut it loose, and the receiver, if he's not out of his break, that's his problem," Stocco said. "And I think we all understand that now. And at the same time if I throw it too late or whatever it's my fault. So I think we just have a lot better trust now."
Stocco commanded a leadership role as a senior among veterans last year. As an upperclassmen on a younger team this season, his leadership shined.
"You see him in the huddle really challenging the guys on the short yardage situations, the third downs, and you see him go up and down the sidelines on the offensive side, encouraging when we need to be encouraged," Horton said.
Perhaps most importantly, Stocco has stayed remarkably healthy. He has not missed a game in two seasons.
"His durability and his toughness are second to none," Horton said. "He's proved that he'll play with courage and sacrifice his body, which he's done."
With another season like the one he enjoyed this year, Stocco has a chance to surpass Darrell Bevell's career passing yardage mark (7,686). After playing in 27 games, and starting the past 24, Stocco has thrown for 4,741 yards.
Stocco, however, is not concerned with the records he sets, other than his 18-6 mark as a starter.
"We just want to win games," Stocco said. "That's all that I try to do. It doesn't matter how many yards I throw for."